China could be using TikTok to spy on Australians, but banning it isn’t a simple fix



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Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan University and James Jin Kang, Edith Cowan University

In an age of isolation, video sharing platform TikTok has emerged as a bonding force for many. But recent headlines allege the service, owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance, is feeding users’ data to the Chinese Communist Party.

Earlier this week, the Herald Sun reported an unnamed federal MP was pushing for the app to be banned.

Following suit, Liberal senator Jim Molan said TikTok was being “used and abused” by the Chinese government, while Labor senator Jenny McAllister called on TikTok’s representatives to face the Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media.

TikTok has denied the accusations and rebuffed suggestions it should be banned in Australia.

But why is the federal government examining this app so closely? And could it really be a tool used by the Chinese government to spy on us?

A growing following

With a reported two billion downloads worldwide, TikTok’s Australian market is also significant. It has an estimated 1.6 million Aussie users, mostly aged 16-24 but with a growing number of older users too.

Simply, users generate short videos that are shared in the app, with many celebrities also signing up. But although TikTok seems to offer carefree entertainment, is there a darker side?

Australian television presenter Andrew Probyn had an unexpected TikTok moment.

What information is collected?

When installed, TikTok asks users to grant several permissions, including the use of the camera, microphone and contact list. However, it may also collect location data, along with information from other apps on the device.

Last year, a proposed class action lawsuit filed against TikTok in California claimed the company gathered users’ data, including phone numbers, emails, location, IP addresses, and social network contacts.

The lawsuit also stated TikTok concealed the transfer of data (including biometric data), and continued to harvest it even after the app was closed. This would mean when a user shoots a video and clicks the “next” button, the video could be automatically transferred to servers – without the user’s knowledge.




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Where is the data stored?

While TikTok’s headquarters are in Beijing, Australian general manager Lee Hunter recently claimed Australian users’ data was stored in Singapore.

A major challenge in sorting the truth from fiction lies in how we define “data”. While TikTok users’ details and videos may be stored in Singapore, there’s still potential for data to be extracted from this video content and the device and sent to China’s servers (although this hasn’t been proven to have happened).




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Hypothetically, it would then be possible for Chinese authorities to use biometric data to identify people using facial recognition. It would also be possible to map rooms and locations by using “feature extraction” (a machine learning method) on videos.

This could then aid the creation of new, advanced deepfake videos potentially targeting specific people.

While this may seem far-fetched, there have already been preemptive TikTok bans within major organisations to ensure sensitive information isn’t leaked.

For instance, the app has been banned from devices used by the Australian Defence Department, the US Department of Defence, and even entire countries – with the Indian government announcing a nationwide ban last month.

Privacy issues

ByteDance claims its data is stored in servers in the US and Singapore:

Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.

TikTok’s privacy policy is ambiguous. As of January, it states:

You should understand that no data storage system or transmission of data over the Internet or any other public network can be guaranteed to be 100% secure.

From a user privacy perspective, TikTok has access to a device’s location and a user’s personal information. Although TikTok’s servers may be located outside China, it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to confirm where this data could end up, or what it could be used for.

While the location of servers can be important, possession of data is more relevant. Once data is obtained, it can be used. If data is stored on a server in Australia, for instance, Australian jurisdiction applies. But once it is sent to another country, that country’s laws take precedent.

And if a TikTok user decides to delete their content from their device, or if there is a government-imposed ban, data can’t be retrospectively erased. Once information is transferred, it’s impossible to retract without the cooperation of the organisation or agency concerned (in this case, TikTok).

Can the government actually ban TikTok?

The fact is, enforcing an Australia-wide ban on TikTok isn’t a simple prospect. While the federal government could request the app’s removal from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, it could only do this for Australian regions and marketplaces.

Users in Australia would still be able to download TikTok from another region’s store, or via a third-party source. Also, banning the app won’t automatically remove it from devices on which it is already installed.

Blocking access to TikTok’s servers would be done in conjunction with internet service providers (such as Telstra and Optus), as they can block access to apps and websites. But users could still use proxies or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent these controls.

And even if TikTok was banned, citizen data already handed over would remain stored, and could be accessed for the foreseeable future.




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The Conversation


Paul Haskell-Dowland, Associate Dean (Computing and Security), Edith Cowan University and James Jin Kang, Lecturer, Computing and Security, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Naval exercises in South China Sea add to growing fractiousness between US and China



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Tony Walker, La Trobe University

The deployment of three US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to the South China Sea have further tested strained relations between China and the United States.

The US naval exercises represent an enormous aggregation of firepower. Adding to tensions, the US deployment coincides with Chinese war games in the same vicinity.

These waters are becoming congested naval space.

This is the first time since 2017 that America has deployed three carrier battle groups into contested waters of the South China Sea and its environs. You would have to go back a further ten years for another such display of raw American naval power in the Asia-Pacific.




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In 2017, the US sent a three-carrier force into the region to exert pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea to cease provocative missile tests and the further development of its nuclear capability.

On this occasion, it is China that is being reminded of American capacity to assert itself in what has become known as the Indo-Pacific. This describes a vast swathe that laps at China’s borders from India in the west to Japan in the north-east.

Washington seems bent on conveying a message. However, it is not clear that China is in a mood to heed such messages in an atmosphere of escalating rhetoric.

In a response to the American naval exercises, Beijing’s official English-language mouthpiece, The Global Times, accused Washington of “attempting to show off its military capability, threaten China and enforce its hegemonic policies”.

The newspaper quoted Beijing “analysts” as saying:

The South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the People’s Liberation Army, and any US aircraft carrier movements in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA.

This is not true, of course. But the fact such sentiments are emanating from Beijing’s security establishment is confronting, to say the least. When it comes to big-power rivalry, talk might be cheap, but words matter.

In China’s armoury, propaganda is a weapon of influence.

Perhaps the most interesting component of the Global Times assault on US regional “hegemonistic” ambitions is its characterisation of American meddling as that of a “non-regional country that lies tens of thousands of miles away”.

Leaving aside the usual propaganda from Beijing, these sorts of observations represent a continuing escalation in Chinese rhetoric and cannot simply be dismissed as more of the same.

China’s own characterisation of the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake”, in defiance of multiple territorial claims and counter-claims from its neighbours, represents a noose around the region’s neck.

This begs the question whether a regional arms race is under way and likely to intensify. Australia’s own announcement of increased defence expenditures on such items as long-range anti-ship missiles attests to concerns about China’s growing assertiveness.

Canberra’s commitment to lift defence spending above the 2% of GDP benchmark and equip itself with greater offensive capabilities represents a direct response to a perceived China threat.

In that regard, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, in which he described the Indo-Pacific as the “epicentre of rising strategic competition”, crosses a red line in Australian strategic thinking.

Morrison added “the risk of miscalculation and even conflict is heightening”.

This is indisputable.

The prime minister’s recent comments crossed a red line in strategic thinking.
AAP/Lukas Coch

As a snapshot of the region, the 11-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased military spending between 2009 and 2018 by 33% in real terms, according to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI).

This was significantly more than growth in spending in other regions. It’s directly attributable to concerns about a deteriorating security environment. Australia’s planned acquisition of long-range anti-ship missiles is part of a wider regional trend.

More weapons with greater range increase the risk of an incident. This may come about by accident but be built up into something much bigger – a shooting war or, more likely, a nasty memory that will haunt international relations for many years and lead to yet more militarisation.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates China’s defence budget in 2020 stands at US$261 billion. This compares with the US defence budget in 2019 of US$717 billion.

In percentage terms, increases in China’s spending outstripped that of its significant neighbours. This includes India, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

A lot more spending is on the way. By 2035, half the world’s submarine fleet will be deployed in the Indo-Pacific, according to Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper.

At the same time, China is pressing ahead with its own aircraft carrier fleet. It has two: one purchased off the shelf from Ukraine; the other built in China. The keel has been laid for a third at a Shanghai shipyard.

This is serious stuff. China is a nuclear state.

All this needs to be kept in mind as ill-tempered exchanges between Washington and Beijing over China’s responsibility for a global health pandemic, trade tensions, human rights abuses, bullying of Hong Kong, border skirmishes with India and increased pressure on Taiwan weigh on an increasingly strained relationship.

Arguably, tensions between the US and China are worse now than in 1989, when a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters ruptured relations. The difference between then and now is that China has a vastly larger economy and is an emerging superpower with a military to match its ambitions.

In 1989, China’s economy on a purchasing power parity basis was a fraction of the size it is today. Its contribution to world trade had not yet become supercharged.

China-US relations are at their lowest ebb since the pro-democracy uprising of 1989.
AAP/Reuters/Siu Chiu

What also is noteworthy is that, unlike 1989, China’s armed forces are no longer almost exclusively land-based. Chinese naval capabilities have progressed in leaps and bounds, along with its electronic warfare capabilities.

Hanging over a potentially worsening security environment, certainly an ill-tempered relationship between Beijing and the West, is widespread uneasiness over a deterioration in American global leadership.

In a presidential election year in which a wounded president is fighting for his political survival, risks of a miscalculation are real.

In other words, the security and political environment is treacherous at a moment when China itself feels under siege. As a consequence, China is lashing out at its perceived detractors, real or imagined.

This includes Australia, which has found itself under an almost daily barrage of Chinese invective following Morrison’s clumsy attempts to spearhead an independent inquiry into China’s responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.




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Typical of this sort of invective is the following, courtesy of the Global Times:

Australia is only a follower of the US, and its capability in the South China Sea will be limited.

The bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters might be regarded as the low point in Beijing’s post-Mao Zedong relationship with the West, but it could be argued there is now a more worrying set of circumstances.

No country in the Indo-Pacific, with the possible exception of North Korea, can feel comfortable about China’s growing assertiveness. So it is tempting to say something will most likely give.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Students in China heed their government’s warnings against studying in Australia – less than half plan to come back



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Marina Yue Zhang, Swinburne University of Technology

Only 40% of students in China who previously intended to study overseas still plan to, while just under 50% of those who had studied overseas plan to return to their study after the borders reopen.

These are results from our unpublished survey of 1,012 students we conducted in China between June 5 and 15. We asked them whether they would continue with their plan to study abroad post COVID-19.

These findings are not surprising. Due to growing tensions between China and the West – even before COVID-19 – middle-class parents in China had become increasingly concerned about the safety of, and possible discrimination against, their children abroad, including in the US and Australia.

The pandemic seems to have accelerated this trend.

Sign up to The Conversation

What students say about studying in Australia

Of the 1,012 students we surveyed, 404 had registered to study abroad in the next three years (in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore) and 608 had been studying overseas (including in Australia, US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Japan) before COVID-19 .

In the questionnaire, we presented interviewees with considerations and asked them to nominate which ones would influence their decision about whether to study in Australia after COVID-19, as well as in other countries.




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The first group (group A) includes 304 students who had studied in Australia but who were not able to return due to travel restrictions.

Of these, 50% were undergraduates, 42% graduates, 5% doctoral students, and 3% vocational education or high school students.

The second group (group B) includes students who had never studied abroad before but had registered their intention to in the next three years, including in Australia, before COVID-19.

The second group also answered Australia-specific questions.



Not many students in either group considered issues such as more expensive air travel, less freedom in China and online lectures as critical factors influencing their decision to study in Australia.

But the two groups reacted to some factors quite differently. The students who had studied in Australia before considered the following factors as more critical to their decision:

  • returnees with Australian degrees are not more competitive in China’s job market compared to graduates from top-tier universities in China

  • life is more convenient, safe and easier at home and I don’t want to go abroad to endure the hardship as a foreign student

  • improved political stability and economic prospects in China

  • less of a chance of landing a good job with an Australian degree in China

  • no need to go abroad if lectures are delivered online.

The group of students who hadn’t yet studied in Australia but planned to, considered the following factors as critical:

  • media reported cases of Chinese being “discriminated against” or “abused” in Australia

  • deterioration in Sino-Australia relations

  • not many outstanding returnees from Australia are visible in the media to represent the success of Australian education

  • Australian universities lowered the entry standard for foreign students due to COVID-19

  • Australian degrees are perceived to be less valuable compared to degrees from other English-speaking countries, especially the US and the UK, by HR personnel in China.

What the students said

Not surprisingly, both groups considered the Chinese government’s warnings against visiting, or studying in, Australia important. A decision to study and live abroad is often made by the whole family in China. Official voices weigh significantly in such decisions.

A student who had done some of her master degree in a Melbourne university said:

After the Chinese New Year, Australian borders were closed to Chinese students due to COVID-19. Direct travel was not allowed. So I travelled to Thailand and spent 14 days in a small hotel in Bangkok before I landed in Melbourne. I had to be self-quarantined for 14 days in my rented room.

Then I found all lectures were moved online and the situation of COVID-19 became serious in Melbourne. The PM urged international students to go home. My parents were so worried. They paid for an over-priced air ticket and a quarantine-hotel in Shanghai for me for 14 days before I could go back to my hometown.

When the [Chinese] government announced the travel and study warnings, I couldn’t convince my parents that things aren’t that bad in Australia. They listened to the government and believed the ‘official voices’ rather than their own daughter.

There have been cases (though isolated ones) of Asians or Chinese people being bullied in Australia due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, social media in China often distorts such cases and amplifies the (mis)perceptions. And the tensions between China and Australia have enhanced these negative perceptions.

Sending their children abroad was once a privilege for elites with intellectual, economic or political power in China. But this is now quite common among middle-class Chinese families.

Chinese families spend a large amount of money on their children’s education. Better opportunities (either in the host country or on returning home) after study abroad is an underlining reason Chinese families invest in their children.




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Australia has attracted many Chinese students in recent decades. But if Chinese students with Australian degrees are less appreciated or less competitive compared to those who study in other countries or in local universities, families will look for other options.

A Chinese student who had been studying at a Sydney university told us:

We are the clients and the degrees are a commodity; we pay for our degrees. What if the commodity loses its value? The clients will surely walk away.

COVID-19 has had a negative impact on the number of Chinese students likely to study in Australia. But the downward trend started way before the pandemic.

Australian universities need to adjust their strategies for a future that will not only deliver value for Chinese students, but also strengthen a positive perception about this value.The Conversation

Marina Yue Zhang, Associate Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hong Kong activists now face a choice: stay silent, or flee the city. The world must give them a path to safety



Sipa USA Willie Siau / SOPA Images/Sipa U

Brendan Clift, University of Melbourne

In recent days, the prime ministers of the UK and Australia each declared they are working toward providing safe haven visas for Hong Kong residents. In the US, lawmakers passed a bill that would impose sanctions on businesses and individuals that support China’s efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The prospect of a shift from rhetoric to action reveals just how dire the situation in China’s world city has become.

July 1 is usually associated with Hong Kong’s annual pro-democracy march. This year, it saw around 370 arrests as protesters clashed with police under the shadow of a brand new national security law.




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Hong Kong police have been cracking down hard on demonstrators for over a year – with Beijing’s blessing – and most of this week’s arrests were possible simply because police had banned the gathering.

But ten arrests were made under the national security law for conduct including the possession of banners advocating Hong Kong independence.

Already, a pro-democracy political party has disbanded and activists are fleeing the city.

What’s in the national security law and how it could be applied

The national security law had been unveiled just hours earlier, its details kept secret until this week. It was imposed on Hong Kong in unprecedented circumstances when Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Beijing’s appointed leader in the city, bypassed the local legislature and promulgated it directly.

The law creates four main offences: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security.

Hong Kong law already contains some offences of this sort, including treason, a disused colonial relic, and terrorism, tightly defined by statute. The new national security offences are different beasts – procedurally unique and alarmingly broad.

Secession, for example, includes the acts of inciting, assisting, supporting, planning, organising or participating in the separation or change of status of any part of China, not necessarily by force. This is calculated to prevent even the discussion of independence or self-determination for Hong Kong.

More than 300 people were detained at a protest this week and ten were arrested under the new law.
e: Sipa USA Willie Siau/SOPA Images/Sipa U

Collusion includes making requests of or receiving instructions from foreign countries, institutions or organisations to disrupt laws or policies in or impose sanctions against Hong Kong or China.

This is aimed at barring Hong Kongers from lobbying foreign governments or making representations at the United Nations, which many protesters have done in the past year.

The law contains severe penalties: for serious cases, between ten years and life imprisonment. It also overrides other Hong Kong laws. The presumption in favour of bail, for instance, will not apply in national security cases, facilitating indefinite detention of accused persons.

Defendants can be tried in Hong Kong courts, but in a major departure from the city’s long-cherished judicial independence, the chief executive will personally appoint the judges for national security cases.

The chief executive also decides if a trial involves state secrets – a concept defined very broadly in China. In these cases, open justice is abandoned and trials will take place behind closed doors with no jury.

A black Hong Kong flag burning last month during an anti-government demonstration.
Viola Kam/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

While Hong Kong courts can apply the new national security law, the power to interpret it lies with Beijing alone. And in the most serious cases, mainland Chinese courts can assume jurisdiction.

This raises the prospect of political prisoners being swallowed up by China’s legal system, which features no presumption of innocence and nominal human rights guarantees. China also leads the world in executions.

Much of the national security law’s content contradicts fundamental principles of Hong Kong’s common law legal system and the terms of its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

Even the territory’s justice minister – another unelected political appointee – has admitted the systems are incompatible.




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Why it is deliberately vague

In the typical style of mainland Chinese laws, the national security law is drafted in vague and general terms. This is designed to give maximum flexibility to law enforcement and prosecutors, while provoking maximum fear and compliance among the population.

The government has said calls for independence for Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and even Taiwan are now illegal, as is the popular protest slogan “liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times”.

Posting Hong Kong independence stickers can now lead to severe punishments.
Sipa USA Willie Siau / SOPA Images/Sipa U

A Beijing spokesman has said the charge of collusion to “provoke hatred” against the Hong Kong government could be used against people who spread rumours that police beat protesters to death in a notorious subway station clash last year, echoing the infamous mainland Chinese law against “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

The law does not appear to be retroactive, but fears that it could be interpreted that way have caused a flurry of online activity as people have deleted social media accounts and posts associating them with past protests.

This is unsurprising given the Hong Kong government’s record of trawling through old social media posts for reasons to bar non-establishment candidates from standing at elections.

Dissent in any form becomes extremely hazardous

Despite the promise of autonomy for Hong Kong, enshrined in a pre-handover treaty with the UK that China claims is now irrelevant, the national security law has escalated the project to “harmonise” the upstart region by coercive means, rather than addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction.

Under the auspices of the new law, the Chinese government will openly establish a security agency, with agents unaccountable under local law, in Hong Kong for the first time. It has also authorised itself in the new law to extend its tendrils further into civil society, with mandates to manage the media, the internet, NGOs and school curricula.

Under the weight of this authoritarian agenda, dissent in any form becomes an extremely hazardous prospect. It is no doubt Beijing’s intention that it will one day be impossible – or better yet, something Hong Kongers would not even contemplate.




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The aim of silencing all opposing voices – including those overseas – is clear from the purported extraterritorial operation of the law.

The international community has condemned Beijing’s actions, but its members have a responsibility to follow words with actions. The least that democratic countries like the US, UK, Australia and others can do is offer a realistic path to safety for the civic-minded Hong Kongers who have stood up to the world’s premier authoritarian power at grave personal risk.

Some 23 years after China achieved its long-held ambition of regaining Hong Kong, it has failed to win hearts and minds and has brought out the big stick. Its promises may have been hollow, but its threats are not.The Conversation

Brendan Clift, Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s push into PNG has been surprisingly slow and ineffective. Why has Beijing found the going so tough?



Peter Parks/Pool/EPA

Ian Kemish, The University of Queensland

Chinese activity in Papua New Guinea was not the only factor behind Australia’s Pacific “Step-Up”. As a former high commissioner to PNG, I know it followed serious deliberations about Australia’s overall strategic imperatives in the region.

But China’s engagement with our nearest neighbour was in the minds of many when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the foreign policy initiative in November 2018, pledging to

take our engagement with the region to a new level.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was about to make a state visit to Port Moresby, before joining other world leaders at the APEC Summit there. China had been busy repairing roads and constructing an international conference centre in the PNG capital ahead of the meeting, along with a six-lane highway leading to the parliament.

A Chinese hospital ship had just conducted a well-publicised “humanitarian mission” to PNG. And Prime Minister Peter O’Neill had recently signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, fuelling concern that PNG’s growing financial exposure to China might be converted to Beijing’s strategic advantage.

Xi Jinping was the first Chinese leader to visit PNG when he arrived for the APEC summit in November 2018.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Xi then used the opportunity of his state visit to pledge an additional US$300 million in concessional loans to the country.

Several Papua New Guinean friends commented then that none of this activity would be of lasting benefit to the struggling developing country. But it certainly captured public attention, and suggested a renewed strategic intent on China’s behalf to boost its influence in the region.




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Recent setbacks in China’s outreach

Eighteen months later, China is still looking for ways to engage with PNG, motivated by interest in both its abundant natural resources and key strategic location. But these efforts sometimes seem uncoordinated, and Beijing has suffered some significant setbacks.

China has been surprisingly slow to respond at critical moments. For instance, PNG officials became frustrated with bureaucratic stalling in early 2019 as they sought to follow up on Xi’s promised loan, and Australia ultimately stepped in to supply the required A$440 million.

Canberra also outmanoeuvred Huawei’s bid to lay undersea high-speed internet cables to PNG and the neighbouring Solomon Islands.

And this year, China has not sent any meaningful signal of solidarity to PNG since the onset of COVID-19 – just proforma PPE donations. Western institutions like the IMF are instead stepping in with emergency financial assistance but, so far at least, China has been nowhere to be seen.

Anti-Chinese sentiment flares up

The recent experience of China’s Zijin Mining Group points to another constraint – the anti-Chinese sentiment that sometimes lurks below the surface in PNG.

The PNG cabinet decided in April not to renew the gold mining lease held jointly by Zijin and Canada’s Barrick Gold at Porgera in the Highlands region. Prime Minister James Marape announced Porgera would instead transition to national ownership.

A letter from Zijin Chairman Chen Jinghe to Marape was then leaked. Chen warned if Zijin’s investment was not “properly protected”, he was

afraid there will be significant negative impact on the bilateral relations between China and PNG.

This provoked visceral anti-Chinese sentiment and praise for Marape’s stance on social media in PNG. Speculation last week the government was looking to sell the mine to another Chinese group sparked a further wave of anti-Chinese feeling – this time critical of Marape.

The tone of some of these messages brought to mind the violent attacks against Chinese and other Asian small business owners at past moments of economic hardship and local tensions in PNG.

A Chinese store owner taking shelter during anti-Chinese protests in PNG in 2009.
ILYA GRIDNEFF/AAP

Zijin is not the first Chinese resource company to face difficulties in PNG. In 2004, China’s Metallurgical
Construction
Company (MCC) secured the agreement of then-Prime Minister Michael Somare to buy the Ramu nickel mine in Madang province.

The company learned quickly that an agreement with the head of government is not enough. MCC did not plan adequately for engagement with landowners, provincial authorities and environmentalists, and inflamed local tensions by using imported Chinese labour.

MCC spent almost two years in court pitted against these groups, to its substantial cost.




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China is not giving up

PNG can be a hard place to operate. As the Australian government and many businesses and NGOs have found, success requires sustained effort with multiple stakeholders.

Chinese companies are not giving up. China Mobile reportedly looked at taking over domestic mobile carrier Digicel earlier this year, and Shenzhen Energy is persevering with its stalled US$2 billion “Ramu 2” hydro power project, given initial approval by the O’Neill government in 2015.

Industry sources report the current government, eager to announce employment-generating projects, is considering moving to implementation stage after some hesitation.




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A deal has also recently been signed allowing PNG seafood exports to China.

China has every right to pursue investments in the region, and PNG is entitled to diversify its external links. Beijing will likely make further advances, but on current form these will likely be more opportunistic than strategic.

Australia should engage China positively in PNG, consistent with its bilateral interests in both Port Moresby and Beijing. It should also build confidently on the advantages that flow from geographic proximity and a long, overall positive relationship with its friends across the Torres Strait.The Conversation

Ian Kemish, Former Ambassador and Adjunct Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Alert but not alarmed: what to make of new H1N1 swine flu with ‘pandemic potential’ found in China



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Ian M. Mackay, The University of Queensland

Researchers have found a new strain of flu virus with “pandemic potential” in China that can jump from pigs to humans, triggering a suite of worrying headlines.

It’s excellent this virus has been found early, and raising the alarm quickly allows virologists to swing into action developing new specific tests for this particular flu virus.

But it’s important to understand that, as yet, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission of this particular virus. And while antibody tests found swine workers in China have had it in the past, there’s no evidence yet that it’s particularly deadly.




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What we know so far

China has a wonderful influenza surveillance system across all its provinces. They keep track of bird, human and swine flus because, as the researchers note in their paper, “systematic surveillance of influenza viruses in pigs is essential for early warning and preparedness for the next potential pandemic.”

In their influenza virus surveillance of pigs from 2011 to 2018, the researchers found what they called “a recently emerged genotype 4 (G4) reassortant Eurasian avian-like (EA) H1N1 virus.” In their paper, they call the virus G4 EA H1N1. It has been ticking over since 2013 and became the majority swine H1N1 virus in China in 2018.

In plain English, they discovered a new flu that’s a mix of our human H1N1 flu and an avian-based flu.

What’s interesting is antibody tests picked up that workers handling swine in these areas have been infected. Among those workers they tested, about 10% (35 people out of 338 tested) showed signs of having had the new G4 EA H1N1 virus in the past. People aged between 18 to 35 years old seemed more likely to have had it.

Of note, though, was that a small percentage of general household blood samples from people who were expected to have had little pig contact were also antibody positive (meaning they had the virus in the past).

Importantly, the researchers found no evidence yet of human-to-human transmission. They did find “efficient infectivity and aerosol transmission in ferrets” – meaning there’s evidence the new virus can spread by aerosol droplets from ferret to ferret (which we often use as surrogates for humans in flu studies). G4-infected ferrets became sick, lost weight and acquired lung damage, just like those infected with one of our seasonal human H1N1 flu strains.

They also found the virus can infect human airway cells. Most humans don’t already have antibodies to the G4 viruses meaning most people’s immune systems don’t have the necessary tools to prevent disease if they get infected by a G4 virus.

In summary, this virus has been around a few years, we know it can jump from pigs to humans and it ticks all the boxes to be what infectious disease scholars call a PPP — a potential pandemic pathogen.

If a human does get this new G4 EA H1N1 virus, how severe is it?

We don’t have much evidence to work with yet but it’s likely people who got these infections in the past didn’t find it too memorable. There’s not a huge amount of detail in the new paper but of the people the researchers sampled, none died from this virus.

There’s no sign this new virus has taken off or spread in the regions of China where it was found. China has excellent virus surveillance systems and right now we don’t need to panic.

The World Health Organisation has said it is keeping a close eye on these developments and “it also highlights that we cannot let down our guard on influenza”.




Read more:
4 unusual things we’ve learned about the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic


What’s next?

People in my field — infectious disease research — are alert but not alarmed. New strains of flu do pop up from time to time and we need to be ready to respond when they do, watching carefully for signs of human-to-human transmission.

As far as I can tell, the specific tests we use for influenza in humans won’t identify this new G4 EA H1N1 virus, so we should design new tests and have them ready. Our general flu A screening test should work though.

In other words, we can tell if someone has what’s called “Influenza A” (one kind of flu virus we usually see in flu season) but that’s a catch-all term, and there are many strains of flu within that category. We don’t yet have a customised test to detect this new particular strain of flu identified in China. But we can make one quickly.

Being prepared at the laboratory level if we see strange upticks in influenza is essential and underscores the importance of pandemic planning, ongoing virus surveillance and comprehensive public health policies.

And as with all flus, our best defences are meticulous hand washing and keeping physical distance from others if you, or they, are at all unwell.The Conversation

Ian M. Mackay, Adjunct assistant professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why China believed it had a case to hit Australian barley with tariffs



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Weihuan Zhou, UNSW

China’s landmark investigations into Australian barley led to the imposition of “anti-dumping” and “anti-subsidy” tariffs of 80.5% in May, threatening an Australian export market worth $A600 million a year.

China says it made its own calculations on the extent to which Australia subsidised barley after Australian authorities failed to give it all the information it needed in the form it requested.

It set out its findings on subsidies in a report at present only available in Chinese.

One was that Australian officials “did not comply” with its requirements in relation to the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program.


‘The Australian government reported the overall situation in the answer sheet, but did not comply with the requirements of the investigating authority’

Australia disputes that conclusion.

At first glance the possibility that Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program could have had anything to do with subsidising barely exports seems baseless.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan, of which the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program is a part, is a long-running program aiming to remedy a century of over-exploitation of water.

It includes no discussion of production targets, export volumes or anything else that might be expected to set off trade alarm bells.

Plan more than environmental

But the plan and its A$13 billion budget is about more than the environment.

It originally prioritised the environment, but in 2010 its goal was explicitly changed to address a triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental concerns.

From there, its management became a major economic and political issue.




Read more:
While towns run dry, cotton extracts 5 Sydney Harbours’ worth of Murray Darling water a year. It’s time to reset the balance


Scandals surround huge payments for dubious water rights, infrastructure spending that doesn’t actually save water, and massive subsidisation of irrigation expansion into areas that were not previously irrigated.

Stories abound of favoured companies or regions reaping large windfalls at the expense of taxpayers, other farmers, the environment, or all three.

Administered with ‘habitual’ secrecy

Australia’s Department of Agriculture says the government fully engaged with China’s investigation, “including providing extensive information on production and commercial information on the Australian barley industry”.

But the department hasn’t always been forthcoming about its operations.

A South Australian Royal Commission concluded that its claim to be committed to engaging in public debate and open dialogue should be regarded with “deep suspicion”.

The separate Murray Darling Basin Authority operated with “an unfathomable predilection for secrecy”.

The behaviour was “habitual”, in the assessment of the Royal Commission.

We might have given China a case

Even if Australian officials did participate in the Chinese investigation in good faith, the potential for confusion is considerable given the jargon that engulfs both water management and trade law.

Few water managers speak trade law and equally few trade lawyers understand the jargon of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

From a trade law perspective, although the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program and the Basin Plan do not explicitly subsidise exports, the fact that much of the Basin’s produce is exported means it could be argued that they distort trade.




Read more:
The Murray-Darling Basin scandal: economists have seen it coming for decades


It is open to a country such as China to take action if the program has conferred benefits to an Australian industry and the subsidised exports have caused a material injury to a competing domestic industry.

China alleges this is the case for barley, but a stronger case could perhaps be argued for the Basin’s bigger export crops: cotton, almonds and walnuts.

Part of the reason is that the program involves government spending, but it is possible to argue that the implementation of the Basin Plan has also subsidised exporters in another way, by environmental mismanagement.




Read more:
Australia’s ‘watergate’: here’s what taxpayers need to know about water buybacks


The Barwon-Darling has been described by environmental regulators as “an ecosystem in crisis”. Contributing to the crisis has been a system that allocates scarce water to irrigators and diverts huge volumes of floodwater into private dams.

This arguably illegal practice of “floodplain harvesting” provides huge benefits to cotton exporters.

It is uncertain whether China’s barley decision will bring about changes to Australian water management that downstream communities, irrigators, Indigenous nations and environment groups have long called for.

It would help if water regulators explained what they were doing in terms that can be understood by ordinary Australians and Chinese trade experts alike.


Contributing to this article were Maryanne Slattery, a former director at the Murray Darling Basin Authority and a director of water consultancy Slattery Johnson, Rod Campbell, Research Director at the Australia Institute and Allan Behm, director of the Australia Institute’s International and Security Affairs program.The Conversation

Weihuan Zhou, Senior Lecturer and member of Herbert Smith Freehills CIBEL Centre, Faculty of Law, UNSW Sydney, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Foreign Minister Payne pledges continued fight against Chinese ‘disinformation’



Joel Carrett/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has attacked China’s “disinformation” about racism in this country and committed Australia to a more activist role in pressing for reform of multilateral institutions, including the World Health Organisation.

In a Tuesday night speech titled “Australia and the world in the time of COVID-19”, Payne rebutted criticism of the Morrison government for getting out in front of other countries in pushing for an inquiry into the origins and handling of COVID.

“We can be small in our thinking, timid in purpose and risk averse. Alternatively …we can be confident, believe in Australia’s role in the world and prioritise Australia’s sovereignty – and Australians’ long term interests – by making the difficult decisions and choices,” she said.

Payne condemned countries using COVID “to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models.”

“I have also been very clear in rejecting as disinformation the Chinese government’s warnings that tourists and students should reconsider coming here because of the risk of racism.

“I can say emphatically that Australia will welcome students and visitors from all over the world, regardless of race, gender or nationality,” she said, adding that law enforcement agencies would deal with individual crimes.

“The disinformation we have seen contributes to a climate of fear and division when what we need is cooperation and understanding.

“Australia will resist and counter efforts at disinformation. We will do so through facts and transparency, underpinned by liberal democratic values that we will continue to promote at home and abroad.”

Payne said a foreign affairs department audit of Australia’s engagement in multilateral institutions, commissioned by Scott Morrison last year, had recognised the limitations of these bodies. But “Australia’s interests would not be served by stepping away and leaving others to shape the global order for us”.

“We must stand up for our values and bring our influence to bear in these institutions to protect and promote our national interests, and to preserve the open character of international institutions based on universal values and transparency.

“Australia will continue to work to ensure global institutions are fit-for-purpose, relevant and contemporary, accountable to member states, free from undue influence, and have an appropriately strong focus on the Indo-Pacific.

“We will continue to support reform efforts in the United Nations and its agencies to improve transparency, accountability and effectiveness. This is foreign policy designed to use Australian agency and influence to shape a safer world and make us safer at home.”

On the World Health Organisation, she said, “Through our role on the WHO executive board, and proactive participation in a range of regional and global health forums, Australia will present tangible proposals and initiatives to ensure that the global health architecture emerges stronger from Covid-19.”

In general, Australia would direct its efforts to preserving three fundamental parts of the multilateral system:

  • rules protecting sovereignty and peace and enabling international trade and investment

  • international standards on health, transport, telecommunications and other matters underpinning the global economy

  • norms underpinning universal human rights, gender equality and the rule of law.

“We will work to ensure that the development of new rules and norms to address emerging challenges is consistent with enduring values and principles. This is particularly important in the case of critical technologies, including cyber and artificial intelligence, and critical minerals and outer space.”

“Effective multilateralism, conducted through strong and transparent institutions, serves Australia’s interests,” Payne said.

“Our challenge is to ensure the institutions, and our active engagement, delivers for Australia and for Australians. To do this, Australia must better target our role in the global system.

“Australia’s role in seeking an independent review of COVID-19 is a prime example of this active engagement in the national interest,” she said.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.